It took a while, but I have now softened up to the concept of "house butter."
Let me get this part out of the way: According to the Food and Drug Administration, it's safe to leave butter and margarine out at room temperature. The agency warns that leaving your butter in this temperate state for a few days may result in its flavor turning toward rancid, but I like to live my life on a knife's edge, and I take the risk. This isn't how I was raised.
Did you grow up in a butter household? I didn't. It was one of the great mysteries of my childhood, why food tasted better when my Grandma Kinsman was around, until I finally put it together that it wasn't some sort of old-world nana mojo, but rather that my dad would eschew our regular Parkay or Imperial and spring for the real stuff when his mom would come to visit. The woman had grown up kneading a dye packet into lumps of oleo to make the whole mess a more appetizing yellow rather than a pallid, unappetizing white, and she deserved a gentle, sunny spread.
I texted my dad about it just now, and he explained that his father, a milkman, used to deliver butter, so that was all they would ever use, save for during the war years and a little after. "During the war butter was in limited supply for domestic use and people used margarine," my dad explained. "The butter producers were worried about getting the domestic market back post-war and got several legislations passed to retard margarine sales. One was that margarine couldn't be colored at the production facility."
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With the slow, patient force of her hands, my grandmother wrought gold from white fat, but the moment she could, she ran back into the soft, supple arms of her first love. "My mother always left the butter out," my dad wrote. "In the summer and when they cranked up the heat in the winter, it was close to being a liquid, which was good for spreading. I always thought it would go rancid, but it never did."
Young, thrifty, and with two daughters to feed, my parents opted for margarine sticks, hard and chilled in the fridge door. (My dad just admitted to me that his concerns are not health-based, but rather that of flies and ambitious cats.) Further into the health-fad '80s, those bars became crocks of spreads, chemically calibrated to remain softish in their refrigerated tubs with a fraction of the calories of real-deal butter. Flavor, too. Not that I knew it at the time; carved into my memory is a moment in my adulthood when I got to fulfill a yearslong dream of finally getting a paycheck that allowed me to, at least once, feel financially stable enough to walk into a grocery store and fill my cart without scrutinizing the cost down to the cent per ounce. I grabbed butter — probably the store brand because I'm an eternally anxious recovering Catholic with bone-deep guilt and terror around pleasure and frivolity — but nonetheless, butter.
But again with the anxiety, the sticks remained fridged until the day I learned about "house butter." Huh? I'd never heard the term until my husband told me about the West Village diner he frequented in the late '90s, when his two-egg special cost $2.90 and felt like something of a splurge. One day another regular plopped down and preemptively announced to the waiter, "Don't gimmie none of those packets; gimmie the house buttah." My husband watched as the short-order cook swiped off a hunk from the softened block next to the grill and slathered it onto the man's toast as easy as you please. House butter, I'm home.
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I aspire to be a meticulous, fancypants cook with the wherewithal to swap out the water from my Le Creuset butter keeper and keep the stuff fresh like a French lady would, but I'm just not. My baking butter stays chilled or even frozen, but the stuff I slather onto bread and English muffins, dab into my popcorn, smear onto radishes, and just generally luxuriate in — that stays nestled into its wrapper, high up enough that even my most dedicated butter hounds can't make a leap for it. OK, one did recently, and I found the foil licked clean and flattened in the hallway, but can I blame him? Having softened butter at the ready feels like a minor opulence. I just needed to warm up to it.